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The Secular at its Most Sacred: Exsultemus Sings Palestrina’s Madrigals


Exsultemus presented its first concert of the season on Saturday evening, October 9, at University Lutheran Church in Cambridge. The early music vocal quintet, directed by the group’s soprano, Shannon Canavin, assembled an exceptional program, framing some of Palestrina’s most underperformed madrigals with works that had either had a profound influence on, or had been influenced by the emerging Italian Madrigal style. Early music singers tend to revel in venues with huge reverberant spaces. But this venue, despite being a church, was unusually dry, leaving the performers’ voices far more exposed than I have ever heard within the pre-tonal idiom. It was perhaps because of this vulnerability that the group’s performances, enriched by an extremely refined understanding of period performance practice (not to mention the acutely difficult practice of convincingly delivered just intonation), seemed all the more impressive.

The first few pieces on the program, representative of the very earliest forms that could be considered madrigals (and generally preceding the use of the term), gave an interesting impression of the genesis of the style. Works by Costanzo Festa, Philippe Verdelot, Cipriano de Rore, and Jaques Arcadelt each had their own unique idiosyncrasies that were strongly suggestive of their roots in the frottola and chanson. Festa’s madrigal showcased the three lower voices of the group, Paul Guttry, Jason McStoots, and Owen McIntosh, who performed the piece valiantly. Countertenor Martin Near’s potent, penetrating voice richly illuminated the melancholy tone of Verdelot’s “Con lagrime.” The opening canon between Near and Owen McIntosh in Arcadelt’s “Solo e pensoso” transpired with enchanting elegance, and a delightfully surprising moment of unison later in the piece was delivered with a sense of energetic character that really injected it with a sense of life. Most of the really gratifying moments appeared in the first four madrigals. Throughout the program the musicians displayed an uncanny ability to translate what was happening musically in to a subtle form of body language; they were really communicating with each other in an intimate way that can only be seen with really small, really skilled choirs.

The Palestrina madrigals were the first pieces in which the full quintet sang.                   Perhaps it is because Palestrina’s secular music still sounds like Palestrina, and it tends to not sound secular, that the well-crafted sense of control and consistency we get from the sacred masses permeates through these works as well. Text setting is handled with an eloquence that is unrivaled by his contemporaries, or composers from any period for that matter, but there’s much less of a sense of compositional adventure that we find in Palestrina’s predecessors. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to hear some of the less-heard pieces from the composer, pieces that elicit less internal debate on Counter-Reformational dogma. It’s clear that the lighter context of the texts used in the early madrigals had at least some effect to loosen Palestrina’s typical rigidity.

It was in the Palestrina madrigals that we really got to enjoy the texture of the full core ensemble. Despite being only five singers, they created a lush texture, with the resonance of bass-baritone Paul Guttry filling out the bottom and Ms. Canavin and Mr. Near accommodating each other’s contrasting tones in moments where they share the same register, interweaving even the most contrapuntal moments with pristine clarity. The performances of the later madrigals, which addressed more religious themes, were done nicely as well, if slightly underwhelming in comparison to some of the other madrigals on the program. Marenzio’s “Non fu mai cervo sì veloce al corso,” near the end of the program, is a rigorous test of endurance for even the most experienced early-music group. The piece, though uncommonly long by madrigal standards, has not a single dull moment. The ensemble navigated through the vocal acrobatics with resolution, and only a faint loss of perseverance was noted near the end of the performance. The final Palestrina number also was performed with a slight sense of exhaustion, but took nothing away from an otherwise excellent evening. Although this was my first concert experience with this group (despite seeing its some of its members often with Blue Heron and some contemporary music ensembles), it seems evident that Exsultemus is unquestionably in the top-tier of Renaissance vocal ensembles in the Northeast.

Exsultemus’s next performance is entitled “A Portuguese Christmas” and is set for December 17th at First Lutheran Church of Boston, showcasing the seldom-performed music from the Iberian Peninsula.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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